The Jack I Knew

By Douglas Gresham

Douglas GreshamThere have been books (many books, of which I have perpetrated two), plays, movies and even songs written about my late stepfather, CS Lewis. They vary between good, bad, and ugly, most of them written by people who either barely knew him or never knew him at all. They can tell you (with varying degrees of inaccuracy) what he was, where he was, when he was, and what he did, but almost none of them are able to tell you who he was.

While he was alive, I never knew “CS Lewis”, the name on the spines of the books, for the living, breathing, delightfully talking man who filled my young life with his presence was “Jack”. My first encounter with him was extra-ordinary. I was an eight-year-old American schoolboy, “straight off the boat”, brought to Oxford a short while after arriving in this strange land of England, where the people dressed so oddly, spoke so oddly, and ate strange and unlikely foods. I was being taken to meet the man who, as far as I was concerned, actually knew High King Peter of Narnia and the great lion Aslan; a man who, for all I knew, might be a member of King Arthur’s court. I almost expected a tall, stalwart figure in armour, carrying a broadsword, but the reality was very different. In the kitchen of his house, The Kilns, we were greeted by a slightly stooped, balding, round-shouldered being with long nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, dressed in the shabbiest clothes I had ever seen. This was no knight, this was a don. An Oxford don at the time.

Despite my initial dismay, Jack soon emerged from someone I knew only as CS Lewis to becoming a real figure in my life. I lost an illusion, gained a friend, and later a much-loved stepfather.

Within a short time Jack, “Warnie” (Jack’s brother Major Warren H Lewis), and I were sawing up a heap of branches into firewood. Jack and Warnie, though academics both, were not above putting their hands to such menial tasks. Jack showed me the woods and the lake behind The Kilns, and taught me to look for fauns and dryads among the glowing sycamores and shimmering beeches. I learned a respect for plants, such as the giant horsetails in the marsh above the lake; I learned a love of fields, forests and animals; I learned a delight in weather, from roaring winds to calm stillness, from pouring rain to bright sunshine. All have their place in my heart, and this I learned from Jack.

Jack taught me to read too. I don’t mean to read as one learns in primary school, but to read for the love of reading and learning, for all the world’s wisdom is to be found in books. Jack taught me that. The house was full of books, and none was barred to me.

At first, I lived in London and visited The Kilns infrequently, but within a brief time we had moved to Headington a mile or so away, and Jack made it clear that I was a welcome guest. Some of the myths about Jack, and there are many, have come from his own pen. “Not good with children,” he said of himself, and yet I rarely met a man who was better with children. I think perhaps he meant that he was never at ease with them, but then we are not meant to be entirely at ease with children other than our own. A misogynist some have libelously labeled him, and yet I never knew a man so considerate of women, nor one more charming and entertaining in their company.